Meet Erica Cirino, eXXpedition Round the World Leg 2 crew member. As part of our Ambassador Spotlight Series we wanted to share Erica’s Superpower Story.
CAN YOU TELL ME A BIT ABOUT YOURSELF?
I am a science writer and artist exploring the intersection of the human and nonhuman worlds. When I was 15, I got a job as an assistant at a wildlife rehabilitation clinic on Long Island, New York. The job involved rescuing and providing medical and rehabilitative care to thousands of sick, orphaned and injured wild animals for their eventual release into the wild. I noticed that a lot of the animals I was treating were increasingly affected by plastic, especially in the ocean. I soon connected the growing amount of plastic around me and the growing number of plastic injuries and fatalities I observed in my rehabilitation work to symptoms of a larger problem—the plastic crisis. This led me to wonder what could be done and so I tapped into my creative interests and ended up pursuing a career in science journalism.
As a writer, I have covered stories about wildlife and the environment, most often related to biology, conservation and policy. Currently, I focus on stories about the global plastic pollution crisis—from documenting plastic in different ecosystems, to investigating the latest science measuring the extent of the issue, to new solutions that could prevent further ecological destruction and harm to wildlife. My stories appear in Scientific American, VICE, The Atlantic, New Scientist, The Revelator, Hakai Magazine and other popular science publications. Last year I also authored my first book, Thicker Than Water: The Quest For Solutions To The Plastic Crisis, which brings readers on a globe-hopping journey to meet the scientists and activists telling the real story of the plastic crisis.
Through my writing, art and wildlife rehabilitation work, I hope to foster human care, conversation and, perhaps, kinship with the nonhuman world.
Erica with eXXpedition on the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Sophie Dingwall.
HOW DID YOU END UP SAILING WITH EXXPEDITION?
I was very excited about eXXpedition as soon as I heard about it. I immediately sent in an application video. Many of my friends encouraged me to apply because they know I love to sail. My work covering the story of plastic pollution has taken me sailing twice across the Pacific, in Danish waters, and around Iceland; to Southeast Asia, across the U.S. and Western Europe; the Caribbean; Polynesia and beyond. In particular, to hear about eXXpedition’s mission to bring people together that are less represented in science was really fascinating to me. It was a great opportunity to meet other people who care about the plastic crisis and I met a lot of kindred spirits on my voyage. It was a really rewarding trip and I think about it often. It really is wonderful how sailing can bring lots of very special people together.
Electric schooner Ópal off Grímsey Island, Iceland with Ocean Missions. Photo by Erica Cirino.
“The world is so amazing and we know so little about it, but what we do know is so alarming.”
WHAT DID YOU LEARN THAT SURPRISED YOU MOST DURING THE VOYAGE?
I learned that there are so many different ways to study plastic! Bringing these multidisciplinary research methods together really reiterated how little we know about this amazing world around us, but what we do know is so alarming.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR SUPERPOWER?
My superpower is storytelling and I use many different forms of media to do that. I love writing and photography but I’ve done everything from spoken word art to leading hands-on plastic art workshops for children.
HOW HAS THE VOYAGE INFLUENCED YOUR WORK SINCE YOU RETURNED HOME?
Sailing with eXXpedition really highlighted the health impacts of plastic pollution in our ocean. Prior to the voyage, I knew a lot about the impacts of plastic on wildlife and had witnessed the extent of plastic on earth physically, but to find out how chemicals associated with plastics and pollution are impacting our health was very alarming. It highlighted the need to better understand the links between the health of the environment and our bodies and that has become a key focus of my work.
Since returning from my voyage, I’ve also kept in touch and collaborated with women from other eXXpedition voyage legs. For example, Geraldine Le Roux is a writer and artist from eXXpedition Round the World Leg 8 and I’m in her book, Sea-Sisters, which is fantastic! We’re constantly using the SHiFT Community Hub to see who’s active and what people are doing. It’s amazing to see what the eXXpedition community has morphed into.
“The voyage put my existence into perspective. It was a very humbling experience.”
eXXpedition leg 2 crew reaches antigua. Photo by Erica Cirino.
WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD TO HAVE ACHIEVED?
My biggest achievement since the voyage is publishing my first book, Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis. As a Safina Center Launchpad Fellow, I traveled the world to document the extent of the plastic crisis and to meet with experts and communities working to change our relationship to plastic, challenge the corporations churning out plastic waste, and implement pollution solutions that work. Much of what you’ve heard about plastic pollution may be wrong. Instead of a floating island of trash, the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of manmade debris spread over hundreds of thousands of square miles of sea—more like a soup than a floating garbage dump. Less than 9% of all the plastic we’ve made to date has been recycled, and microplastic fragments are found almost everywhere, even in our bodies. In Thicker Than Water, I bring readers on a globe-hopping journey to meet the scientists and activists telling the real story of the plastic crisis. New technologies and awareness bring some hope, but my book shows that we can only solve the problem if we reevaluate and shift away from our modern throwaway culture, and rectify longstanding injustices.
WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS GOING FORWARD?
At the moment I’m finishing building a house from scratch. I started the project in 2019 before the pandemic hit and I’ve tried extremely hard to keep it plastic free. I replaced a lot of the fundamental building materials with non-plastic alternatives and used materials that were more regenerative. For example, I sourced woods that were fast growing and harvested from forests that are not infringing on indigenous rights. It’s been very hard but I can feel the payoff will be worth it! Perhaps I can turn my experience into a book…
WHAT KEEPS YOU HOPEFUL ABOUT THE FUTURE OF THE OCEAN?
For me, having a community like eXXpedition, my sailing friends and all the environmental justice heroes I’ve met helps reassure me that the future is in good hands. The more information we uncover, the better I feel because I know we’re finally cutting through to the truth about plastic and that’s really exciting. I wanted my book to really show the scale of the plastic problem and all the implications, but I also wanted it to offer some words of encouragement because we need it.
“I feel so lucky to have met so many amazing people.”
IF YOU COULD GIVE ONE MESSAGE TO THE WORLD, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Seek out a strong community that you feel supported by, but also one that you can offer your superpowers to. It is easier and less daunting to address a problem together than it is alone.